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Last Updated: Monday, 8 December, 2003, 14:07 GMT
Little room for Zimbabwe compromise

By Joseph Winter
BBC News Online

President Robert Mugabe's decision to leave the Commonwealth leaves little room for political fence-building in Zimbabwe.

President Robert Mugabe
Mugabe is in no mood for compromise
South Africa and Nigeria have been using the Commonwealth framework to talk to both the government and opposition in Zimbabwe about setting up a national unity government.

They see this as the best way out of Zimbabwe's disastrous economic and political situation.

Shortly before Mr Mugabe announced he was pulling out, President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria said "The key is reconciliation," adding that Zimbabwe could then be readmitted in "months not years".

But it is hard to see any sign of reconciliation in Zimbabwe at the moment.

'Appeasement'

At the annual conference of his Zanu-PF party, which just happened to coincide with the Commonwealth summit, Mr Mugabe again criticised the opposition Movement for Democratic Change as "British stooges" and questioned the value of talks with them.

South Africa has leverage and it should be brought to bear
Welshman Ncube
MDC

The MDC says that Mr Mugabe has never taken the idea seriously.

MDC secretary general Welshman Ncube told BBC News Online that while South Africa was pushing the idea of the two sides working together, hundreds of opposition activists were arrested and others killed by Mr Mugabe's supporters.

"Appeasement is what is dangerous," he said.

'Polite request'

However, senior Zanu-PF official Didymus Mutasa told BBC News Online that the withdrawal from the Commonwealth would actually bring talks closer.

"We are not averse to talks but we do not like being given orders like small children," he said.

Child with dog in food queue
Half of Zimbabwe's population needs food aid
He even said that Mr Mugabe would be happy to meet MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai "if he asked politely".

Mr Mugabe has previously said that he will not talk to the MDC while it is challenging his controversial March 2002 re-election in the courts.

South Africa hopes that a national unity government would see all sides working together to solve the country's dire economic situation, which is causing hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans to cross the border to look for work.

Some senior Zanu-PF officials have reportedly been involved in talks with the MDC.

They were apparently looking for a deal which would include Mr Mugabe stepping down, to be replaced by one of their number.

On Friday, Mr Mugabe denounced them as "traitors", "turncoats" and "worshippers of money" and made it clear that he had no intention of resigning.

The MDC in turn insists that any transitional government should have the primary task of organising new elections under international supervision, to decide which party should form a legitimate government.

Mugabe's shield

Although Mr Ncube said that Mr Mugabe's decision to withdraw was illegal, he also hopes that it will lead South Africa to change its position.

"South Africa should stop pretending that dialogue is taking place. South Africa has leverage and it should be brought to bear," he said.

MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai (l) with Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo (r)
Nigeria's Obasanjo (r) wants reconciliation between Mugabe and Tsvangirai (l)
As the regional powerhouse, South Africa does indeed have considerable influence over Zimbabwe.

President Thabo Mbeki has strived to shield Mr Mugabe from public criticism in a number of international forums and instead pursued "quiet diplomacy" in the belief this is more effective than public condemnation of the Zimbabwe Government.

It is also supporting the government by not demanding full payment for oil and electricity.

Some analysts argue that the Commonwealth summit has shown that this policy has failed.

"Mugabe has not been helpful to South Africa and Nigeria. He is also isolating himself from the leaders on the continent," said Sehlare Makgetlaneng, head of research for southern Africa at the Africa Institute in Pretoria.

Zimbabwe's withdrawal has also cut off one of the main avenues for the international community to have talks with Mr Mugabe.




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